The Condition of the Working Class in Shenzhen

The Condition of the Working Class in Shenzhen

While gleaming shopping malls dot the urban landscapes of China, selling Nikes, Coach bags, and Prada shoes, a more authoritarian regime is making it harder for workers to organize or protest their low wages and poor working conditions.

A Foxconn dormitory in Shenzhen, China. In 2010, Foxconn added netting on the roofs in an effort to prevent suicides. (VCG / Getty Images)

Workers in Shenzhen, China, toil day and night sewing clothes, building iPhones and iPads, constructing skyscrapers and new subway lines, and cleaning hotel rooms for global capitalists negotiating business deals. During a recent visit to Hong Kong and mainland China, I explored labor relations in this city of 13 million that has been at the heart of the nation’s industrialization miracle. A booming factory town, Shenzhen feels in some ways as I imagined New York City or Chicago one hundred years ago: their neighborhoods overflowing with working people and families, the streets jammed with traffic, peddlers of various kinds shouting out their deals and tempting you to buy. In each blossoming industrial cityscape, migrants, often from peasant backgrounds, mingle and bustle across the crowded sidewalks and streets. But whereas New York City’s industrial working class in the early twentieth century was composed of immigrants from across Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean, Shenzhen workers are mostly internal migrants from China’s countryside—they are China’s famed “peasant-workers,” as they are commonly known. Forming a class of nearly 290 million people, according to China Labour Bulletin, the peasant-workers constitute 35 per cent of China’s total working population (810 million) and have become central to the success story of Chinese capitalism.

What challenges do these peasant-workers face as they build a life for themselves in Shenzhen—particularly at this historical moment when President Xi Jinping has steered his country sharply toward authoritarianism? While gleaming shopping malls dot the urban landscapes of China, selling Nikes, Coach bags, and Prada shoes, a more authoritarian regime is making it harder for workers to organize or protest their low wages and poor working conditions. Consumer capitalism is king. “We have one freedom only,” a labor activist explained to me, “the freedom to consume.” With consumerism as the only panacea, harsh working conditions, low wages, virtually no union protections, and a legal system that denies full rights to peasant-workers in cities like Shenzhen, Chinese communism has created the most brilliant system on earth for capitalist exploitation of its working class.

Shenzhen sits in the Pearl River Delta in South China, just north of Hong Kong. A small market town of only 30,000 people in the 1970s, Shenzhen became the first Special Economic Zone (that is, an area with special tax incentives to encourage foreign investment) in 1980, when Deng Xiaoping decided to experiment with free-market capitalism. The city rapidly grew into a manufacturing, tech, and global financial hub: between 1978 and 2014, its GDP per capita rose by 24,569 percent, a faster growth rate than that of Singapore or Hong Kong. Although the government in recent years has moved a significant amount of manufacturing away from coastal cities and to the west—largely as a response to labor protests and working-class discontent—Shenzhen remains central to the nation’s export industry, due in part to its strategic location near Hong Kong and Macau. It is home to major corporations including drone maker DJI, telecommunications giant Huawei, and internet and social media conglomerate Tencent.

My journey into this world began in Hong Kong, where I talked with scholars at the University of Hong Kong and visited the office of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). SACOM activists shared their strategies for bringing employer offenses to light and to help workers fight for better working conditions. The following day they led me on a tour of Shenzhen’s manufacturing districts. We explored an area of small electronics companies, the garment district, and finally, the vast world of Foxconn, the Taiwanese corporation famous both for making Apple’s iPhones and iPads—and for an ongoing problem with employee suicides. With the recent announcement that Foxconn is building a large campus in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, an examination of the company’s approach to managing and disciplining workers in China is more relevant to the United States than ever.

Even before the recent authoritarian turn in Chinese politics, working-class life was extremely difficult. With little opportunity to make a living in the countryside, tens of millions of young Chinese now migrate to cities for work (most factory workers in Shenzhen are migrants in their teens and early twenties). They leave behind any children to be raised by the grandparents, so entire generations have grown up with their parents absent. As social life has fallen apart, China has experienced a rising suicide rate among elders in the countryside. Meanwhile, the migrant workers’ household registration (hukou) remains linked to their original countryside residence. Although they are legal residents of the city, they are denied a wide range of educational, health, and housing benefits. This makes the peasant-workers of Shenzhen (and many other cities) second-class citizens—similar in some ways to undocumented immigrants in the United States. They feel trapped because the absence of economic opportunity in the countryside makes it impossible to return home; yet in their new home, they are cut off from even fundamental welfare benefits, thus increasing their vulnerability and dependence on their employers.

Peasant-workers settle into jobs in the electronic, garment, construction, or service industries in cities like Shenzhen. The jobs pay low wages, below the minimum considered necessary to sustain life (the minimum wage in Shenzhen is approximately ¥2,200 per month, or roughly $330; around double that amount is required to survive). This forces workers to seek a punishing schedule of overtime work, with employers using overtime to control workers as needed. To make ends meet, workers crowd together in small dormitory rooms, often provided by their employer, with surveillance cameras throughout the building and the threat of eviction if they protest.

Employers routinely break laws regarding occupational safety or gender and age discrimination without consequences, according Michael Ma, a project officer for SACOM. Whether labor laws are enforced at all depends significantly on whether the local governments take action. As we toured the manufacturing district we saw recruitment ads, for example, that called for women without families to apply—a clear violation of the law. A 1993 fire at a Shenzhen toy factory that killed eighty-one people revealed that employers routinely locked doors and windows to keep workers indoors. Despite the calls for reform that followed that fire, another fire in 2013 at a poultry plant in northeast China revealed that the same violations were common. Locked doors are just one of many causes of workplace deaths. Although China’s record on workplace safety has improved in recent years, the number of deaths remains shocking: more than 30,000 people were killed in workplace accidents in both 2016 and 2017. The Hong Kong–based NGO China Labour Bulletin tracks the grim causes of death: chemical plant explosions, cranes tipping over, factory fires, and so on.

The official government union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, does little to represent workers or protect their interests. Instead, workers rely on social media and a battery of workers’ centers, NGOs, and activist organizations. Such groups provide training for workers, a range of resources, strategizing for possible protest actions, and a variety of ways to amplify and highlight any labor actions. Yet in these conditions, workers find it extremely difficult to build a movement that can create change. They are isolated and lack resources. This is the true “miracle” of Chinese industrialization: a highly vulnerable, precarious, and exploited working class.

Since Xi Jinping ascended to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party and president of the People’s Republic in 2013, the government has moved aggressively to take control over civil society. Early targets included human rights advocates (consider, for example, the infamous crackdown of July 9, 2015, in which approximately 300 human rights lawyers and activists were arrested).

The government soon turned attention to labor activism. Slowing economic growth and rising labor protests encouraged government officials to find ways to suppress labor solidarity. According to China Labour Bulletin, which maps strikes and other labor protests across the country, labor actions peaked in 2015 at nearly 3,000. Labor activists had always confronted the possibility of harassment, but in recent years, prominent activists have faced arrest and tighter controls over both print and social media make it harder for workers to publicize labor actions and share information. That same year, harassment of labor organizations intensified, with surprise raids on labor organizations, mass arrests of activists, and prison sentences for several prominent leaders for “disturbing social order.” In 2016 and 2017 two new laws signaled the government’s determination to transform its management of social relations. The Charity Law and Foreign NGO Law introduced stricter monitoring of domestic and foreign organizations and tighter regulation of their fundraising. The Foreign NGO Law, for example, forbids any activity that endangers “China’s national unity, security, or ethnic unity” or harms its “national interests [or] societal public interest.”

As a result of these new requirements, many social justice organizations and worker centers have shut down due to lack of financial resources. Meanwhile, social media is now often censored for “harming social harmony.” For example, on International Women’s Day in 2018, Feminist Voices, one of the most prominent feminist accounts on popular platform Sina Weibo, with 180,000 followers, was forcibly shut down. The government did not fully explain, saying only that Feminist Voices posted “sensitive content” that violated regulations. Censorship like this has a chilling effect on the communications of all social justice organizations, including those focused on labor. Together, these measures have made labor organizing in Shenzhen more challenging.

At the same time, the government cannot completely suppress organizations that support workers, because they also help stabilize the workforce by providing a modicum of resources and training. So, episodic harassment has become the new normal. As a result of the government clampdown, according to China Labour Bulletin, the number of labor actions has declined radically in Guangdong Province (the home of Shenzhen) from a peak of 417 in 2015 to 331 in 2016, and only 148 in 2017. According to Pun Ngai, a sociologist at the University of Hong Kong, based upon her fieldwork and observations of China’s industrial relations over the last few decades, however, these lower statistics reflect not greater complacency among workers but rather the greater difficulty of sharing information about labor actions. She observes that labor protests remain at roughly the same level as before. If anything, she argues, working-class discontent is higher than before. Furthermore, Michael Ma of SACOM points out that even though wages have increased slightly over the last five years, inflation and rents have both increased, thus lowering the overall purchasing power of workers.

Consider the case of Foxconn, the fifth largest corporation in the world, with 1.2 million employees in China alone. In some ways, Foxconn is an outlier. Its compliance with labor laws is better than that of smaller companies, according to SACOM’s Michael Ma, but the stringent and dehumanizing labor discipline it deploys makes for an extremely challenging work environment. What’s more, other large corporations watch and learn from its tactics. The factory is run like a military camp, with no talking aloud while working, perfect posture while sitting or standing enforced, stools surrounded by yellow tape to ensure they remain in alignment. Overtime is typically required or, if workers misbehave, denied.

Interviews with one young woman who attempted suicide, but survived, conducted by sociologist Jenny Chan, provide a chilling portrait of Foxconn’s work regime. Tian Yu, herself a member of the “left-behind generation,” was raised in the countryside by her grandparents when her parents moved to the city for work; she then moved to Shenzhen for a factory job at the age of seventeen. Simply finding her way into the gigantic factory—at the time it had 400,000 workers—took hours that first day. Yu related that workers must show up every morning for an unpaid meeting to motivate them for the day’s work. Their workday is typically twelve to fourteen hours long, with only one day off every two weeks. Workers who fail to meet production quotas are denied even a ten-minute break. Large slogans adorn banners on the wall: “Growth, thy name is suffering,” or “A harsh environment is a good thing.” Before work begins on the production line, employees are led in a chant: “How are you?” the foreman asks. “Good! Very Good! Very, very Good!” workers respond in unison. Thousands of security officers patrol the factory, supported by surveillance cameras everywhere. Workers go through extensive security checks before entering the factory to ensure that no one will bring in an iPhone or camera to record the factory work process. Employees are required to purchase special bras and belts made without any metal so they won’t set off the security alert. Workers who misbehave are publicly humiliated; one was forced to stand at attention for hours. In another case, a hundred workers were required to stay late after work to observe a disciplined employee read out loud a message of self-criticism she had been required to compose.

The isolation and alienation these working conditions generate have been well documented and, with no union protection, it is understandable that launching organized labor protests is difficult. Workers find even coming together in their leisure time to be difficult. Although Foxconn dormitories include shopping areas and recreational facilities, workers find they don’t have the time to make much use of them. After eighteen suicide attempts (resulting in fourteen deaths) in 2010, Foxconn made changes, including: raising pay, adding netting on the roofs of dormitories to try to prevent suicides, hiring Buddhist monks to conduct meditation sessions in the factories, shifting some employees out of dormitories and into rental apartments, and, most importantly, beginning a historic shift of factories toward western cities such as Chengdu. Perhaps most important for reducing suicides, Foxconn instituted more careful psychological testing of employees to weed out people deemed mentally fragile and, for a while, required employees to sign a waiver declaring the company not responsible if they committed suicide. The number of suicides has decreased radically to fewer than five each year. Yet worker discontent continues at high levels. When a new iPhone model is released the workload becomes more intense and, with the demand for labor at its highest, workers gain a bit more leverage to press their grievances. So, just when Americans are badgering their local Apple salespeople to put the new iPhone in their hands, Foxconn workers are most likely to erupt into labor protests. This can take the form of a letter of complaint going viral on social media, a protest at an Apple store in collaboration with an activist group like SACOM, or occasionally a protest within the factory. In 2015 dozens of workers protested by holding up a banner declaring that Foxconn refused to pay its share of social benefits to the workers. Within three days, sixteen of the workers had been identified and fired.

One response to labor protest has been to automate production. Foxconn owner Terry Gou announced a plan for widespread use of robots soon after the mass suicides in 2010. He seeks to raise $4 billion to fully automate production. Thus far the effort has moved very slowly, however, because humans are cheaper than machines and more flexible to use, given the rapidly changing nature of Apple products. After all, the revenue from an iPhone costing $600 that goes to the worker is roughly $12.50 to $30. Another solution to Foxconn’s desperate need for easily disciplined labor has been an increased and highly exploitative use of student interns. Students as young as sixteen begin interning at Foxconn and other companies, sometimes in order to graduate from their vocational school. They are not classified as employees and they do not join the union, but they work the same long shifts as any other worker. Interns receive the same wages but they are more expendable and employers do not pay either a skills bonus or social benefits, making them a flexible and cheap workforce. At times, up to 10 percent of Foxconn’s workforce has been composed of student interns. SACOM activists are currently devoting much attention to fighting this abusive system.

Wandering through the neighborhoods around Foxconn, we saw workers leaving the factory, shopping for bras or pants with no metal parts, looking over the latest iPhones, or finding food for dinner. The internet cafes are full of workers, mostly men, seeking escapism in video games. Sprinkled amidst the shops are large displays of government propaganda slogans, declaring, for example, “Socialist Values! Love Your Country!” High-rise apartment villages dominate the landscape; Foxconn found it didn’t make enough money through company dorms and, in addition, workers prefer some independence, so the official corporate dormitories have been downsized. Even the independent apartment buildings have bars on windows to discourage suicide attempts. It was a terribly hot day, and as night fell, families flooded out into the streets, seeking cool air. In the local playground grownups commandeered some of the children’s swings for a place to sit. Others found a place on the street curb or atop an empty grocery box. They sat about talking, swapping stories, checking their phones, drinking beers. Minus a few twenty-first century symbols like smartphones, the raw energy in this working-class metropolis transported me back to what the Lower East Side might have felt like long ago, when U.S. industrialization was at a similar fever pitch. Yet the migrants of Shenzhen face greater challenges than those confronted by workers during the heyday of U.S. industry. Unsupported by their union, their worker centers and NGOs dominated or banned by the government, second-class citizens of the city in which they live, and unable to return home to the countryside, Shenzhen factory workers are easy to control and difficult to organize.

What possibilities exist for positive change, amidst Chinese communism’s brilliant system for exploiting workers? Mounting grievances among laborers ensure that strikes and other labor actions will continue to erupt. Despite the suppression of free speech and assembly, labor activists creatively use social media and support from NGOs and worker centers to pressure companies and press their grievances. Labor actions are ongoing. As I write in July 2018, workers at one electronics company in Shenzhen have blocked a road to protest unpaid wages, while at Jiashi Technology Co. they organized a sit-in to protest the beating and laying-off of colleagues for attempting to organize a union, and in yet another case, tech workers demonstrated against illegal blacklisting (barring workers from further employment) and other labor violations.

When they protest, workers know they are risking beatings or arrests. In this context, a key resource for China’s working class is the ongoing work by organizations like SACOM, which not only distributes information within China about labor actions but also alerts European and American consumers to bad working conditions. While it is an uphill struggle to convince consumers to care about the exploitation of the workers who sew their cheap clothes or assemble their iPhones, this remains one of Chinese workers’ best hopes.

The concern of American consumers helped push corporations like Apple to audit their suppliers, for example, and pressure them to comply with Chinese labor laws. Yet although such audits sometimes help improve company practices, scholars suggest they can’t always be trusted. Global corporations and companies use audits to give the impression they have reformed supplier practices, even when this is far from the truth.

Peasants and workers were meant to be the very soul of Chinese communism. Yet since 1980, the peasant-workers fueling China’s spectacular capitalist experiment have become a highly vulnerable and exploited proletariat. Their social marginalization, the layers of institutionalized discrimination they face, the severe workplace discipline, low wages, long hours, absence of real union protections, censorship of social media, and limits on what independent organizations attempting to support them can accomplish, all combine to ensure continued exploitation. In one of history’s great ironies, Chinese communists have created the most brilliant system on earth for creating capitalist wealth at the expense of its laborers.

Adding to the irony, all of this is occurring as President Xi Jinping works to resurrect traditional Marxist ideology, ordering study of the Communist Manifesto by all party cadres, for example, and instructing universities to work harder to inculcate Marxist values in their students. Jinping worries that China’s capitalist experiment has led to the growth of Western values at the expense of traditional communist ideology. Of course, the new emphasis on Marxism seeks not to empower workers, but to generate greater loyalty to the authoritarian government. China’s future promises increased tensions as slowing economic growth and increasing inequality will combine with modernization of factories to place workers in ever more difficult circumstances. But as Xi Jinping seeks to impose Marxist values from above, ongoing protests by China’s peasant-workers show their determination to build working-class power from below.


Julie Greene is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Global Migration Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.


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